After graduating with a degree in Computer Science, I moved to New York City to pursue my first job as a Junior Developer at a small software firm.
When my first day rolled around, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to show my new colleagues what I could do.
I spent all day coding up the graphic designer’s wireframes.
But within a minute of sending the mockups, I received an email from my new boss. He was disappointed, and he didn’t mince his words.
Back at home, I experienced something resembling the 5 stages of grief:
Anger (on my first day!),
denial (what do they know, anyway?),
bargaining (maybe if I redo the coding tonight I’ll still have a job tomorrow),
and depression (I should never have left Connecticut).
Finally, I reached acceptance.
The coding had been shoddy. But it still hurt.
I felt my boss’s hyper-detailed breakdown was overkill and he could have at least cushioned the blow with some praise.
I went to work the next day with “I’ll show him” ringing in my ears.
Years later, I think back to this story and smile.
My knee-jerk reaction was normal — we’re hard-wired to reject negative feedback — but I was far more sensitive, and defensive, following years of no feedback at all.
My skin was ultra-thin.
But I tried again, and again, and got shot down again, and again. And every time, it got easier — and I got slightly better. I couldn’t be more grateful for the detailed, specific feedback I received.
But what if I’d landed in a job where, like in college, my work was OK-ed without a second thought?
Would I have coasted along, losing confidence and motivation by the day?
Without feeling like I had something to prove, I might never have pushed myself upwards.
I might never have founded JotForm.
Why aren’t you getting feedback?
Helpful, regular feedback is one of the greatest gifts any of us can receive.
Without red or green flags to guide us, it’s impossible to pivot ourselves in the right direction.
So what happens when your boss, your tutor, your superior, only ever gives positive or negative feedback — or ducks out of giving you feedback altogether?
A recent Harvard Business Review study of 7,808 people found that 21% of business leaders avoid giving negative feedback, and 37% don’t give any positive reinforcement at all.
It’s a common (but incorrect) assumption that the most effective leaders are tough ball-busters who’re quick to criticize, and that positive feedback is of more value if it is dished out sparingly (or not at all).
Why is this?
Perhaps leaders are worried that giving praise will lead to coasting along and complacency, or that they will be seen as weak and ineffective if they are too quick to do so.
Perhaps they are uncomfortable receiving positive feedback themselves.
Receiving just one kind of feedback — or none at all — is damaging. And many people aren’t getting the feedback they need.
What can you do when your boss isn’t giving you feedback?
It’s simple. You need to ask.
How to ask for feedback you need
At university, it never occurred to me to ask for feedback for the assignments I’d passed. Wouldn’t that just be fishing for compliments?
On the assignments that didn’t go well, I felt grateful that my tutor didn’t elaborate on where I’d gone wrong: after all, that would be rubbing salt in the wound.
This mindset is common. No one likes hearing criticism, nor do they want to look like they’re demanding praise.
But over the years, I’ve found that those who actively seek out feedback — both positive and negative — are the ones who go the furthest.
Sheila Heen, author of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, agrees:
“… [those who actively ask for feedback] adapt more quickly to new roles, get higher performance reviews, and show others they are committed to doing their jobs.”
I guess that’s why I’ve tried to create every day, built-in feedback loop for our +108 employees at JotForm. And it goes both ways: if we’re planning to build a feature, we create mockups and send them to our users first:
Does it solve their problem?
Would they use this feature?
If not, why? What’s missing?
It’s a culture of transparency and asking openly for feedback that’s helped us build a product with almost 4 million users.
Over the years, I’ve learned a fair amount about asking for feedback. Here are the things that have helped me most:
1. Ask often
The first time you ask for feedback may well feel plain weird. The next few times are likely to be tinged with awkwardness, too.
But then it will get easier — both the asking and the hearing.
It’s true practice makes perfect. That applies to giving feedback too (so you’re taking your boss with you in an upward curve).
And that curve really does conclude in a win-win. Just the act of asking will make you more brave, more productive and more open.
2. Ask for honesty
Being nice is nice. But nice isn’t necessarily a quality of helpful feedback.
When people are straightforward without tiptoeing, things get a whole lot simpler.
You won’t have to read between the lines. You won’t be tempted to ignore a message wrapped in cotton-wool platitudes.
“We say, ‘That was a great piece of work, there was just a small problem,’ Tim Harford, author of “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure” explains. “What we tend to hear is, ‘That was a great piece of work.’ ”
So ask for straight, candid feedback. Even if it is delivered a little unskillfully (remember your boss is on a learning curve too); clarity and insight can only emerge from total honesty.
Frank feedback can take us by surprise. It might feel like a blow. The urge to explain, defend, apologize may be huge. Don’t do it.
Instead, listen without judgment. If you feel a bit bruised, give yourself time to unwrap and pinpoint what went wrong.
This creates another upward loop. People come to trust that you are robust enough to hear their perspective, and this, in turn, will motivate you to ask again.
3. Be clear about what you’re asking for
‘Feedback’ is a broad term. The wider in scope your request is, the more likely the feedback will lapse into generalities and drift out of context.
Before you ask for feedback, clarify exactly what you want feedback on, and what kind of feedback you’re looking for:
Do you want appreciation or acknowledgment?
Evaluation of your performance?
Critiques on your core competencies?
Your boss is likely to have developed feedback habits already, and you may need to balance this out.
Understanding what you’ve already got too much off, as well as what you’re short on, will help you get what you want from the conversation.
“You can go to your boss and say, I feel like I get a ton of appreciation around here. I know I’m valued,” says Heen. “What I don’t have a sense of is what I need to work on.”
Limit the discussion to two or three main areas to keep things focused and meaningful.
4. Be specific
‘Do you have any feedback for me?’
It’s a reasonable enough question, but will it tell you what you need to know?
Broad requests for feedback tend to lead to vague or multi-pointed answers that overwhelm and give us little to hang on to.
It’s the detail that makes feedback helpful (as well as manageable). So ask for specifics:
‘What’s one area I could improve on?’ ‘What’s one thing I could have done better in that presentation?’
Yes/no questions don’t yield anything useful. Questions that begin with ‘how’ or ‘what’ will elicit fuller responses:
‘How did that go from your perspective?’ ‘What do you think I might have done differently?’
Sometimes you may have to probe deeper to get to the specifics. The other person may say, ‘I just think you need to be more assertive, or more proactive, or more of a team player.’ That’s pretty vague.
You can respond by asking probing questions like,
‘Can you explain what you mean?’ ‘How could I have been more assertive just now?’ ‘What kinds of things should I do to be a better team player?’
5. Do it sooner rather than later
When you ask for real-talk feedback, it’s not flattery that you’re looking for.
But flattery is lovely to listen to. Hearing what you could improve? Not so much.
So it’s natural to dawdle. You tell yourself it’s better to ask tomorrow. Or next week.
In the process of postponing, you lose out on the sharpness of short-term memory. Things get a bit hazier. Feedback, when you do get round to asking for it, is likely to have lost shape into something broader, vaguer, more general — and less helpful.
Sometimes it’s inevitable that a big chunk of time elapses between feedback check-ins. A lot of stuff may have piled up. It may be tempting to go for a marathon session — but a heap of issues is hard to follow up on.
So schedule a few sessions and chop the feedback into manageable chunks, so that each can have a clearer shape and a more definite outcome.
6. … but don’t ask just any time
I’m often pulled aside after meetings to give my thoughts on something. This is fine.
Reach out to your boss, or colleague, or client, and ask for their opinion in a brief exchange. No big deal. Feedback doesn’t need to be super-formal.
On the other hand, there are times when asking for feedback is just not appropriate: on a team night out or in the queue at the cafeteria, in the lavatory, or when the other person seems to be in a hurry or under pressure…
Use your common sense. Being relaxed is one thing; interrupting someone, or putting them on the spot, is another.
And sometimes a little formality does work best. If the issue is important or there is a lot to get through, emailing in advance with a request for a meeting will set the right expectations and make it more likely that the feedback you need gets the time it deserves.
7. Write it down
I’m a firm believer in writing things down to make them happen. And I’m a bit old-fashioned in that when it comes to note-taking, I prefer to use pen and paper.
But I’m not alone in getting more out of taking notes by hand.
There’s plenty of research that shows that the direct contact between hands and fingers, the pen, and the page activates and engages multiple areas of the brain. Plus the page (unlike the screen) is distraction-free.
I always appreciate when an employee takes notes during a feedback session, irrespective of whether it’s on the page or the screen. It shows they are listening and value my time and input.
Documenting feedback discussions is helpful in the long run because it creates continuity and helps us refresh our memory.
But it also helps while we are listening to feedback — because it’s more likely to keep us quiet. Not interrupting is a key rule for receiving feedback, but without note-taking, the urge to chip in and give our perspective can be strong.
And writing takes longer than talking; that creates a small delay space, in which the other person may well have another thought — perhaps a key thought — while you finish jotting things down.
Feedback will have more impact if it becomes part of a process rather than just being an isolated instance.
That’s one good reason to follow up with an email, giving you the chance to say thanks, summarize the main points and outline the actions you’re going to take.
Keep it simple and succinct.
And keep it between yourself and the other person.
8. Colleagues are human resources
Your boss isn’t the only person who can give you feedback.
The people who were in the meeting room, your collaborators testing your design or reading your stories, are all potential sources of valuable input. Don’t just look up the ranks, but also left, right, and down.
Make this reciprocal. Offer them feedback as well.
This will nurture a culture of collegiality and mutual support. The more you give, the more you’ll get.
9. Use the feedback to change things
So you’ve asked, promptly. Your request for feedback has been specific. You have listened with an open mind (without plunging into abject apology, feverish explanation or plain despair). You’ve taken notes and made sure you understood properly what the other person was telling you.
At this point, it’s worth reminding yourself that all this was just the run-up.
It’s obvious, I know: the point of asking for feedback is that you want to implement it.
But funnily enough, some people ask for feedback skilfully and receive it graciously — and then continue on as before.
So what are you going to do, and how, and by when? Set a realistic timeline for yourself. Keep track of what did or didn’t work for you.
And when you feel you’ve come to grips with the changes, get your boss up to speed on how you’ve taken their feedback on board. Make it specific again.
Show that you heard what they said and that it’s made a difference.
Without feedback, we risk stagnating without even realizing it. Feedback keeps us on our toes and well-heeled for the sprints that are part and parcel of most jobs.
Perhaps most importantly, being genuinely open to feedback helps chip down those walls of defensiveness that rise up so easily, particularly at work.
Being protected by walls makes us hard to work with, and it makes us more likely to keep repeating mistakes. If we get written off in the end, it probably won’t be because of the mistakes we make, but because of the walls, we erect around us.
So just ask.
There’s a lot to gain, and not that much to lose (apart from that little bit of pride you’ve been trying to get rid off for years anyway).